Sunday, February 24, 2013

Responding to Rennard

Having spent most of the last week in Eastleigh I only caught snippets of the Rennard story, but it appears to be another case of what is a universal human failing, the belief that anything brushed under the carpet will not eventually come back and bite you in the bottom.  And having witnessed the hundreds of volunteers who have, at their own expense, piled into Eastleigh – and the hundreds more working tirelessly on the phone banks – what really angers me is the thought that those in positions of power in the party appear to care little for the “poor bloody infantry”. When Chris Huhne lied it wasn’t just himself and his family he betrayed, it was the thousands of activists who worked and continue to work tirelessly to get him and his colleagues elected, because they believe in the values of this party. When any politician, of any party, betrays his or her party values they betray every one of us. 

Of course, this is a complex case and Lord Rennard is protesting his innocence, however, we would not be in this position in the middle of a vital by election, had the party taken the allegations seriously in the first place. Having a robust complaints procedure is not only important for complainants it is also important for those against whom allegations are made. When so many women from across the party tell a similar story, it is impossible to explain why no formal investigation was instigated.  If Rennard is innocent he has also been denied justice by never having had an opportunity to put his case.

The claim has been made that no-one wanted to make a formal complaint. I understand that, but that doesn’t preclude a management investigation, someone may not want to put their head above the parapet and initiate a formal complaint, but they may be more comfortable to be a witness as part of a wider investigation.  I was a union activist for long enough to know how hard it is for anyone to complain about the behaviour of their bosses, having been involved in more than one case where the member taking out a grievance led to a counter disciplinary by their boss and the end of her career. As activists the consequences may not be losing one’s job, but potentially one’s opportunity to progress. To be honest I know enough people in the party who have admitted to not speaking out about all sorts of things for fear it would harm their prospects within the party (not least because of the number who have asked me to do it instead). When you see people getting side-lined or vilified for being honest or raising concerns, is it any wonder we have a culture in the party that prevents people speaking up? One of the anonymous complainants is a good friend of mine, I know full well why she feels unable to speak out publicly and since I was at the same event as her and since she spoke to me about the incident immediately after it happened, I know how upset she was at the time.

I must say I fully support Stephen Tall’s call for an independent investigation. As a branch secretary I was involved in a serious case of bullying – the first internal investigation found the perpetrator not guilty because only half of her team had complained! We had to insist on an external investigation, which then led to a disciplinary which found her guilty. We can’t change what has or hasn’t happened up until now, but we can as a party show some remorse and accept that we haven’t handled things well.  Let’s hold our hands up, bring in external investigators and ultimately I hope, ensure we have enough people adequately trained to ensure our grievance and disciplinary procedures are robustly applied.  If not, we risk not only losing further support in the country, but also another tranche of exasperated members.